The dignity of labor is explored with gentle humor and a very melancholy sense of joie de vivre in Wim Wenders’ second 2023 Cannes entry after his 3D documentary Anselm. Shot entirely in Japan, with very little English spoken, Perfect Days is an unusual film from a westerner since it does nothing to “other” a country that is often romanticized as a series of specific cultural signifiers (as in the well-meaning Lost in Translation, for example). It’s a compliment to say that Jim Jarmusch could have made it.
The working title for the film was apparently Tokyo Toilet, the name of the company that employs the film’s gnomic central character, Hirayama (Koji Yakusho). The first half-hour is a masterclass in economy, and could even pass muster as a short: Hirayama rises from his bachelor futon, goes to work, cleans the city’s conveniences with a dignified gusto, then relaxes in his spare time with a visit to the baths or a beer in his favorite bar. At night he reads, or sometimes he sorts through the many abstract photographs he takes while working his shifts. His speciality is komorebi, a Japanese word that describes the natural phenomenon of sunlight streaming through the trees.
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It’s hard to imagine a toilet cleaner being so happy in any western city, but the Japanese have such respect for their facilities that we are spared the gruesome sights one might expect to find, for example, in a central London bathroom. One suspects, however, that Hirayama wouldn’t mind that either; like a beatific Bukowski character, or Harvey Keitel’s cigar store owner in Smoke, he’s an everyman observer (“He’s a great worker, but not a great speaker,” says his rather more extroverted colleague).
Once Hirayama’s routine is established, Wenders’ small but wonderfully gentle drama starts to add random encounters that, while they don’t exactly shake his world from its axis, interfere with his ascetic way of life. One is his colleague’s young girlfriend, who becomes obsessed with Hirayama’s cassette collection, in particular the song “Redondo Beach” from Patti Smith’s album “Horses.” Later, his niece comes to stay, providing company for him on his rounds, and finally he encounters a familiar face from the bar, whose unexpected story both surprises and moves him.
None of this is especially consequential, and that’s the point. Working with screenwriter Takuma Takasaki, Wenders is concerned with the simple pleasures of life and the ripples caused by small gestures. Hirayama’s musical taste becomes key in this respect, and Wenders has a lot of fun with a soundtrack to Hirayama’s life that, one suspects, is actually the soundtrack to his own, with music from The Rolling Stones, The Animals, Nina Simone and — of course — Lou Reed, whose most famous song gives the film its title and appears in a lovely instrumental form.
The reason it works at all is down to the foxy, gracious Koji Yakusho, who commands the screen with a largely silent performance. His serenity is contagious, perfectly complementing Wenders’ minor-key direction and adding unexpected profundity to the film’s seemingly simple message: “The world is made of many worlds. Some are connected, and some are not.”
Title: Perfect Days
Festival: Cannes (Competition)
Director: Wim Wenders
Screenwriter: Wim Wenders, Takuma Takasaki
Cast: Koji Yakusho, Arisa Nakano, Tokio Emoto
Running time: 2hrs 3mins
Sales agent: Match Factory
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